Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Wining in Santa Maria with the #LAWineWriters...

One benefit to staying members of the #LAWineWriters despite our move out of Los Angeles, is that we are able to participate on some of the field trips the group takes. This latest adventure took the Goddess of Wine and First Acolyte, JD, into the wilds of...Santa Maria.

Santa Maria is a city around an hour north of Santa Barbara (and 40 minutes south of our digs), and is notable for its wine industry and Santa Maria-style barbecue. Home to an increasing number of vineyards, wineries and winemakers, and centrally located to both the Santa Ynez and Foxen Canyon areas of Santa Barbara County's wine country, and San Luis Obispo County's Edna Valley-Arroyo Grande wine country, Santa Maria is an area that JD and I have often visited.

Our plucky group met Wednesday morning at the lovely Riverbench. Riverbench Vineyard was established in 1973, when the first Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes were planted on the property. For many years, they sold their fruit to other winemakers, and in 2004, began producing their own wines in limited quantities. Sitting on the southeast edge of the Santa Maria Valley, the vineyard currently consists of 107 acres of Pinot Noir and 77 acres of Chardonnay. In 2008, they created a premium sparkling wine program, and in 2015, they planted Pinot Meunier, and anticipate incorporating these grapes into their sparklers soon. [Above left: Winemaker Clarissa Nagy pours wine for us, behind JD.]

Far Western Tavern
The folks at Riverbench brought in sandwiches and salad from the local Far Western Tavern in nearby Orcutt, and we chowed down at a picnic table on the front lawn while working our way through some truly tasty wines. Highlights of the tasting included the sparkling 2014 Cork Jumper Brut Rose, 2013 Mesa Pinot Noir, and the quick visit of crazy busy winemaker, Clarissa Nagy, about whom more will be written later. Many thanks to excellent hostesses, Robin and Danae, who made us feel welcome.

From Riverbench, we wended our way back along Foxen Canyon and Betteravia Roads to the Radisson Santa Maria, who would be our accommodating hosts for 2 nights. Our check-in was quick and friendly. Our room, clean and quiet, recently updated, looked out over the inside atrium of the hotel. JD and I had stayed here a few years ago, and found it to be a happy experience once again.

The lineup at CNagy
After a quick respite, we carpooled over to nearby Old Orcutt to the tasting room of C Nagy Wines. Yep, that's Clarissa Nagy! Not only is she the much-lauded winemaker for Riverbench, but has been making her own elegant wines for several years. JD and I had met Clarissa several years ago, and are long-time fans, so we were happy to return to her charming tasting room, ably manned by her long-time friend, Lisa. Clarissa arrived as we were about 2/3 of the way through her wines, having driven down to Montecito for a staff training at the Biltmore, where her wines are now on the menu.

Clarissa makes Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, and several of us commented on how her wines - at both wineries - were a true reflection of her character: elegant and refined with playful notes! One important thing to know about Clarissa: Her initial interest and education was in food science, not wine, and her wines are extremely food-friendly. JD and I already have a significant number of C Nagy wines in our cellar!

Dinner at Shaw's
We regrouped a bit later and headed to Shaw's Famous Steakhouse & Tavern. The Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce had set up a dinner for us, and we were treated to a Santa Maria BBQ dinner. Huge quantities of food were delivered to the table. Tri-tip, filet mignon, linguisa sausage, salads, soups, beans, baked potatoes covered in cheese and bacon, oh my! A few bumps in the meal were quickly corrected, and when the super rich, crispy bread pudding with rocky road and vanilla ice cream was delivered to the table, we were convinced we would never want to eat again.

After a good night's sleep, we were up relatively early for our visit to Byron Winery and winemaker Jonathan Nagy, who just happens to be married to Clarissa. You know, that other winemaker.

Jonathan Nagy
Byron has great historical significance as Santa Barbara’s first commercial vineyard. When planted in 1964 by Uriel Nielson, this site was thought to be too cold and inhospitable for grapes, but soon proved otherwise. Ken Brown, Byron’s founder, acquired the 432-acre Nielson Vineyard in 1989, five years after he launched the winery. Located about 18 miles east of the Pacific Ocean at 500 to 750 feet above sea level, with chilling winds and thin soils, Byron’s wines are known for their great intensity, heady aromatics and firm structure. Since becoming head winemaker in 2003, Jonathan Nagy has continued on the path of research and innovation. Oh, and that's where he and Clarissa met. Hurray for serendipity and true love!

Jonathan filled us in on the complex history of the vineyard property (Mondavi! Jackson! Neilson! Byron!) as he led us on a tour of the facility and through the cool barrel rooms. We tasted through the delicious wines of both Nielson and Byron labels while taking in the glorious view of the vineyards on a perfect California day. Standouts included the 2013 Julia's Vineyard Pinot Noir, and the 2013 Nielson Vineyard Pinot Noir, which has been favorably compared to traditional Gevrey-Chambertin. Not bad for a young winemaker in Santa Maria!

Lunch by Chef Rick
As we tasted, we could see Chef Rick Manson delivering and setting up our lunch. As an accommodation to a couple of folks who have food allergies, Chef Rick served us a delicious gluten- and dairy-free lunch. I wouldn't mind having a few more of those coconut shrimp! And some gluten.

After bidding Jonathan and hospitality manager, Jan, goodbye, we moseyed back to Orcutt for an art and wine session at Wine and Design, another activity set up by the Chamber of Commerce. While some of us were leery about painting in a group, it turned out to be great fun, due in no small part to the enthusiasm of teacher Angelina and owner Lauren. Plus Gina from the Chamber of Commerce joined us in our endeavor! (See the finished paintings at the end of this post.) The wine list was made up mainly of Tolosa and Core wines, and I admit, I was so full from lunch that I passed on the wine and drank more water. JD, of course, went Hard Core. #Tasty!

Sakes at Niya
After a nice rest at the Radisson, our hardy group met for dinner at Niya in Old Orcutt. Niya provides modern Asian cuisine, with a sushi bar, a goodly selection of sake, and an eclectic wine list. The friendly Lucia led us through a short sake tasting, and then served us a selection of fresh raw fish, spicy tuna rolls, delicious poke, and a fried pound cake and ice cream dessert. My only carp (see what I did there?) about Niya is the noise level. Even those of us with good hearing were having trouble with the noise, and JD, with two hearing aids, found it was impossible to keep up with the conversation. However, we were treated really well, the food was delicious, and I would go back again. I want to try some of their grilled dishes!

Exhausted, we fell into a deep sleep, knowing we didn't have to be anywhere but home the next day. Part of our group went on to San Luis Obispo for vineyard tours, winemaker dinners, and more adventures, but we headed back to foggy, cool Los Osos.

Thanks to Gina from the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, and Cori Solomon and Patricia Decker of #LAWineWriters for setting up this trip, and to all the wineries, restaurants, Wine and Design, and the Radisson Santa Maria for a delightful experience in and around Santa Maria.

More information about Santa Maria Wine Country can be found at: http://santamariawines.com/index.html


Artists and art!

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